Activate Us

Our activation procedure including contact details and forms for activation, in addition to equipment stockpile and aviation status reports can be found here.

Emergency Contact Numbers

Please note that:

Response services are guaranteed ONLY for Members. Non-members are not guaranteed a response and will be required to sign a Non-member contract. Services and rates differ. Duty managers can be contacted for exercises.

Oil Spill Response Limited Oil Spill Response Limited
  • Interview
  • Wildlife

GOWRS Partner Interview - Episode 6: RSPCA

In this sixth episode, Paul Kelway, OSRL’s Wildlife Preparedness and Response Manager, is joined by Richard Thompson from the RSPCA

  • By Paul Kelway
  • Mar 16, 2022
hero image

GOWRS Partner Interview - Episode 6: RSPCA

In this sixth episode in the GOWRS Partner Interview series, Paul Kelway, OSRL’s Wildlife Preparedness and Response Manager, is joined by Richard Thompson from the RSPCA. 

Richard is currently the RSPCA Rehabilitation Manager at Mallydams Wood Wildlife Centre, UK and has been in post since 1996. Richard's position involves formulating and delivering husbandry protocols and diets for over 100 different species of native wildlife. The RSPCA places a strong emphasis on continual post release monitoring of animals using radio telemetry and mark/recapture projects. The centre is also an educational provider, delivering training on wildlife rehabilitation to RSPCA personnel and students from colleges studying animal care.

If you wish to watch the video of this interview, you can view it here.


0:03 - Paul: OK. Alright, Richard. Well, now thanks very much for doing this interview with us. As you know, we've been doing an interview with each of the GOWRS partners over the last year or more now. So really happy to have a chance to chat with you about the RSPCA. And yeah, I guess then the obvious starting point there is just to have you just share a bit about the RSPCA. So, for those that don't know it, what is the RSPCA? What's the mission and how do you carry out your work? 

0:36 - Richard: I think most people know who the RSPCA are. It's the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but perhaps they don't know everything about the RSPCA. I think they associate it with cats and dogs, whereas actually we’re much broader than that. The organisation has been around for nearly 200 years. So next year we celebrate our 200th year anniversary and so we're very excited about that. But yes, the RSPCA has been involved mostly with cruelty to start with. So that was the origin of dealing with animal cruelty. In fact, it was horses on the streets of London. And and then they broadened to rehoming animals, cats and dogs mostly. And then in the last 50 years I think they looked at wildlife and thought actually we need to get involved with them as well. So, for the past 40 years I've been involved with the wildlife, so I've been around with the RSPCA say since 1990, well AT Mallydams, since 1996 which is my current job of Mallydams Wood Wildlife Centre Manager [one of four RSPCA wildlife rehabilitation centres in the UK]. 

1:47 - Paul: That's right. And as you're saying the people might be familiar with the RSPCA from an animal welfare perspective and possibly from domestic animals. But actually, as you say that there are these wildlife centres that the RSPCA runs and so you're the manager of one of those centres. And so obviously we're talking about oiled wildlife response, but what is really the work of Mallydams Wildlife Centre? What kind of wildlife do you care for? And what kind of situations do you respond to there? 

2:18 - Richard: We care for all wildlife species, all British and native wildlife, except for deer. But our focus was on seabirds here because originally when 50 years ago when John Goodman [former warden of RSCPA Wildlife Centre in Mallydams Wood] came on to the site, somebody brought him an oiled razor bill and so that’s what set the scene for Mallydams to become one of the centres of excellence for all birds. And ever since then we've kind of pioneered some of the washing, the care and the release protocols involved with oiled wildlife. 

2:53 - Paul: Yeah, that's really interesting and it's an important point that RSPCA has this long history of being involved in oiled wildlife response that goes back to the 60s and maybe even further back than that. But you know it's quite a long history isn't it? 

Richard: It is. And I think it was probably the Torrey Canyon [1967 oil spill off the SW Coast of Britian] that was the one that woke the RSPCA out to wildlife and oiled birds because we made so many mistakes during that time and we weren't prepared for the the suffering that went on with oiled birds. And so I think that was the thing that we started questioning what we were doing and how we were dealing with them. And then obviously we invested money for research into how to wash birds and then subsequently into how to release them and what the best methods are. 

So one of the highlights for me was being involved with a sea cage project and this was a halfway house between rehabilitation and release. And this was conducted in Portland Harbour. And this was a project that was funded through the Wildlife Department. And initially there were lots of sceptics, lots of people thought we were pushing the boundary too far. But actually in the end, we answered a lot more questions than we would have answered just through conventional rehabilitation. And I have to say that one of the biggest successes we've had, it's only recently, and it's a bittersweet success because we had a recovery of one of the guillemots that we released from the sea cage in July this year. So that oiled guillemot has survived 22 1/2 years. And so that's a remarkable thing for a little bird like that. And how many times has that bird bred?  It's just remarkable these little birds and and how brave they are, and you know what we do is significant when it comes to that individual bird. 

4:50 - Paul: Yeah that's really incredible. And as you say something like that sea cage project where you're really getting a better understanding of some of the challenges and the ability to survive in the long term in what are obviously pretty harsh conditions for seabirds. But obviously to know that all that effort to get them back into a situation where they can go out and thrive and breed in the wild is obviously the goal. 

5:16 - Richard: Yeah. And we're not complacent about just one recovery, you know, we know that we have to strive and we have to look into these things further. And as we don't get so many oiled birds now it's even more important for us to be prepared. I think the one thing is that we have this optimistic bias that we never think this is going to happen. And so therefore, we know, as we saw with our European colleagues, the Rotterdam spill, nobody expected a spill involved with 500 swans, yet it happened and those we had to respond and we had to be prepared for that. 

5:53 - Paul: Absolutely. Well, and actually that brings me on to I guess just asking you. You've already talked about some of the work that the RSPCA has done over the years in terms of oiled wildlife and oiled wildlife response. But is there a particular response or story of your involvement in this field that further illustrates just some of the work that you do? I know there's been a few different incidents and responses over the years. 

6:20 - Richard: Yes, I've been involved with quite a few locally. There's the Tricolor [2003 oil spill in the French Channel]. So there was a massive response in Belgium, but actually not many people knew that the RSPCA were involved because it hit outside of the channel as well. And so we had nearly 500 birds from that response from that oil spill that was all self-funded, that was business as usual. So we had to find the funding for that. We never got any compensation. We never got any insurance money from that. So we had to really fund, it was self-funded but you know we've had some recoveries from then, good recoveries 5 or 10 years later. So we are measuring our success on those recoveries as well. And of course, I was involved with the Sea Empress, the large spill that was in West Wales [in 1996] and that was a big response for the RSPCA and we had Industry funding that. So we had a relationship with Industry in that case. So you know we're quite aware of how to how to manage a big spill. 

7:27 - Paul: Yeah, it's interesting a couple of really big incidents there you were mentioning and I think you're also highlighting that the RSPCA has this pedigree and history of also being involved internationally and supporting responses elsewhere and working in partnership with other organisations. And obviously in the context of that, the RSPCA has been one of the partners in the GOWRS project over these quite some years now. And this is a question I've asked everybody that I've spoken to. But from an RSPCA point of view, that experience of being involved in the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System when it was a project and all the work that was done, what do you see as some of the real benefits that have come out of that from the RSPCA's perspective? 

8:17 - Richard: Personally, I think the document that we produced, the guidelines, the Ipieca Guidelines are phenomenal. I think I learned an awful lot about other species. I mean I'm used to dealing with Auks and Guillemots, but I learned about Pelicans and so that information sharing is vital I think and also the contacts, the networking that we have involved with the other organisations. Many of these are now good friends, but I know that if push came to shove, if there was anything happening in the UK, I know that you could trust some of these people to come along and respond with the RSPCA. And so I think that's certainly the benefit as well. 

9:01 - Paul: Yeah, it's a theme that's come up time and time again and I think it speaks to the importance of it really that that collaboration is really at the heart of this and can make such a difference. As well as obviously having the structures and the processes and the protocols to know that everybody works in the same way. And that Ipieca technical support document that you mention, it is a fantastic document and again a terrific outcome to have all of these experienced organisations working together to really define or agree on those key principles of responding to oiled wildlife, it's an absolutely fantastic resource. Now obviously in the last year or so GOWRS has transitioned from that project into being a live service. So the GOWRS Oiled Wildlife Assessment Service, which is the four-person assessment team and there's been lots of work that's gone into that and obviously the fact that can now be accessed through OSRL by our members, how does that change things for the RSPCA? What does having that now transition to being a service mean specifically for the RSPCA? 

10:20 - Richard: I think it opens their eyes that we are not prepared, that we need to prepare more. As I say, you know, there is this optimistic bias and the RSPCA is a large organisation that has lots of things to do with animal welfare and so they may not put the resources into oil spill response if there's no oil spills. But I know that speaking to my managers that they feel the value of the GOWRS relationship and the value of this to the RSPCA needs to be kept going. You know, we can't move away from this. This is important for us to to continue to work with and the Assessment Team is just part of that, isn't it? The experience that you will get deploying people on an Assessment Team not just helps us but also helps Industry as well and gives them an idea of actually you know, what's involved with a response. And I think like all the other organisations, we had that individual touch to it because you know, our heart is there to rehabilitate and release oiled wildlife 

11:31 - Paul: Absolutely. And it's an important point to note that of course all spills don't happen. You know all the time that ultimately we don't want there to be incidents. But ultimately the ability to respond and be prepared when there are you know needs that that continuing investment. So I guess one of the elements here is the fact that you as the RSPCA as the other partners are connected into this international community where not only are you then able to be a resource and be a support for instance elsewhere, but ultimately it helps to keep the topic alive back home and hopefully enables to some extent for that experience gained through the international work to then feed hopefully back into UK preparedness as well. 

12:20 - Richard: Indeed, everybody benefits from this. 

12:24 - Paul: You mentioned the ability, from a member's point of view to mobilise this. But as far as having that international team, that Tier 3 team that could be called out to an incident and I guess I'm thinking about parts of the world where maybe there really is very limited preparedness. What do you see as the real importance and value of having that assessment function as a sort of initial first wave function in a response. 

12:52 - Richard: I think you're getting the best team possible in the world to go to some of these places where they aren't prepared. I'm thinking of some of the countries like Nigeria where there are issues in response and access to this and also train people to be able to respond to an oil spill. I think this is very complex and very difficult and challenging. I can't say this is an easy thing and I don't think we've got all the answers to it, but I think, you know, the longer we're doing this, the more experience we get and the better we'll be able to respond to anything in a more complex situation. I mean, I know SANCCOB [South African seabird rehabilitation organisation and GOWRS partner] dealt with the Tristan de Cunha [2011 oil spill on extremely remote island in southern Atlantic Ocean] and actually in the end there wasn't really a great deal they could do for those animals there and it was disappointing. But I think we've learned an awful lot since then about how we can assist and help in these other areas that we're not familiar with perhaps. 

13:54 - Paul: Yeah, it's very true. And I think you mentioned Nigeria as just as an example. And I think, you know one of the I suppose aims of this is really this idea also that over time by not just responding to incidents but being involved in exercises, maybe identifying local organisations in different countries that that also are keen to learn and maybe have had some experience with incidents that Tier 3 team, that Tier 3 service can really help to hopefully enhance the local preparedness as well. So it's not just about having that best team in the world to call in, but having that best team in the world really help hopefully to improve that preparedness over time, right?  

Richard: Yeah, I think so, yes. 

14:39 - Paul: Well, you mentioned SANCCOB and SANCCOB are actually going be the organisation that I interview next. And so I'm wondering if I can just ask you to say a few things about them. What do you know about SANCCOB? Maybe you can just sort of share a bit by way of introduction to their interview. 

15:02 - Richard: I've been to SANCCOB in a personal capacity. When I led a group of RSPCA people, we did a tour of South Africa and SANCCOB were very kind to open their doors to us on the VIP tour and we had our VIP tour and this was in 2006. But I understand since then things have happened and the facility has grown enormously now and they are very busy. I also know that some members of the RSPCA went to respond to the MV Treasure in 2000 [oil spill in South Africa]. And so some of them came back and said all we did was help with the fish all day but they said do you know what it was an absolutely amazing experience and with 80,000 Penguins something like that. 

Paul: 20,000 oiled and 20,000 that were preemptively captured.  

Richard: But they said it was an amazing experience and the team down there were fantastic. And of course now they have a fantastic team in Nicky [Stander, Head of Conservation] and Monica [Stassen, Preparedness and Response Manager]. And you know these are these are people working really hard on the cutting edge of trying to save endangered animals from oil and other issues as well. But I mean, you know, it's imperative that we can assist them as well in their course there. 

16:25 - Paul: Yeah, absolutely. It's a wonderful organisation, another fantastic partner in the GOWRS project and service and another one that we'll be featuring on these interviews. So, yeah, no, thank you for that, Richard. And just before we close, anything else that you wanted to share that we didn't cover about the RSPCA's role or GOWRS? 

16:49 - Richard: Well, now I have actually been appointed the Operations Oil Response Coordinator now. So with the funding that allows me to have one day a week, only one day at the moment to actually focus on the GOWRS’ work and sort of promote preparedness within the Society [RSCPA]. So we're organising training courses for our own staff and also trying to get other people close to the level for the Assessment Team. So at the moment there's very few people in the Society [RSPCA] that is available for the Assessment Team and that's no fault of our own. It's just because high turnovers and staff and oiled birds perhaps not on the agenda all the time but it will give us an opportunity to raise the skills and experience for people underneath me because I'm not always going to be around. 

17:42 - Paul: That's great to hear and I'm glad that you're able to do that and obviously pass on that knowledge to others as well and I wish you all the best with that. And certainly you know RSPCA is an organisation as you say they do an incredible amount of work but thank you for all you've done to you know really drive the oiled wildlife work forward over the years and yeah wish you all the best with that Richard and obviously with the ongoing work with the rest of the GOWRS network as well. Thanks again for having the chat with me today.  

Richard: Thank you Paul. It's been a privilege. 

Paul: See you soon. Bye for now. 


Learn more about the RSPCA here.